It's not easy to push Frank Conniff's buttons.
The "Mystery Science Theater 3000" cult figure — described on his Twitter account as a "writer, comedian, TV's Frank" — is very mellow. He sat for an interview while in Minneapolis for Lizz Winstead's annual show at the Cedar Cultural Center. The Cedar has one of the most interesting green rooms in the Twin Cities with its tall walls plastered with posters of acts that have performed there.
A couple of days after shooting my startribune.com/video I found a note about something a MST3K devotee told me to ask Conniff. So I e-mailed him saying that I was supposed to say, "Push the button, Frank," to him on camera.
"The line, 'Push the button, Frank,' came about because at the end of the show my character was told to push a button that ended the transmission. That's all there is to that story, I'm afraid," wrote Conniff.
That's not, however, all there is to Conniff. In this interview he ruminated honestly about Woody Allen, Don Lemon, Bill Cosby, Twitter Trolls and others much less infamous.
Q: Because you are a geek icon, you must have some pretty crazy fan stories?
A: I think my fans are more normal than I am so they don't seem that weird to me. When we do live shows for "Mystery Science Theatre," when we do personal appearances, a lot of people come with their kids and families and they grew up watching the show. I think they have a weird story about me.
Q: Who are your comic influences?
A: Woody Allen — comic influence, not a relationship influence. There's another comic I'm a fan of, I'm not going to mention his name. But I also like Bob Newhart, Nichols & May, Jonathan Winters, the Smothers Brothers were a big influence on me growing up. More modern people: Patton Oswalt, Dana Gould. Just anyone who's funny has an effect on me, usually.
Q: Do you remember the first joke you wrote?
A: I remember the first time I tried to be funny, and I was maybe 6 years old. My brother Tony was trying to teach me to play baseball. He kept yelling, Keep your eye on the ball! Keep your eye on the ball! and at one point I picked up the ball and put it on my eye. Unfortunately, my humor hasn't gotten much more sophisticated, but at the time I remember laughing hysterically and thinking it was the funniest thing ever. There have been many attempts since, a lot of failed attempts.
Q: NBC's Chuck Todd recently asked panelists if the Bill Cosby story would have had legs had a white comedian said what Hannibal Buress did?
A: I don't know if it would have. I think it's interesting that it took a viral video from a comedian to turn it into a big story. That's one of the most interesting things about this. And as other people have pointed out in articles I have read, the fact that a man bringing it up had more power than the women bringing it up or the women it [allegedly] happened to … The whole story aside from it being a horrible thing about horrible behavior by Bill Cosby, it's really interesting and disturbing from that point of view as well.
Q: I want you to pretend that you are CNN's Don Lemon, who was named one of the worst journalists of 2014 by the Columbia Journalism Review. What do you say to viewers the first day back on the job after being on Christmas holiday?
A: Wow. The first thing I would ask about myself is if my career [had gone] into a black hole; if that's a viable theory. Which could be the case. Then, of course, any woman I'm going to talk to I'm going to ask them why they don't bite someone [while being sexually assaulted]. So if you want me to be Don Lemon I'm going to have to stoop to the level of a kind of … some real stupidity has [to be channeled]. It's great we have FOX News and yet the dumbest guy on TV may be Don Lemon. That's quite an achievement.
Q: Is there any other celebrity for whom you get mistaken a lot?
A: People have told me I look like Philip Seymour Hoffman and now that he's dead even more so. I'd like to say George Clooney, but I'm afraid that's not true.
Q: Why has political satire become more popular than the news?
A: I think a lot of it is the news is pretty incompetent. When we watch the news or read traditional mainstream media, we don't feel we're being informed. We were misinformed about the Iraqi war; the information we got about that and the run-up to it was false. The media didn't do its job. Also the media never in indicated there was going to be a financial meltdown. Just by default, the information we are getting from "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" and other shows is more accurate. That doesn't mean that should be the case. That shouldn't be the case that comedy shows are the most accurate sources of information but it's because the mainstream media has dropped the ball.
Q: Why are you addicted to Twitter Trolls?
A: I don't think I'm addicted to Twitter Trolls. I do get Twitter Trolls, not as much as some people I know, like Lizz Winstead. Your first instinct is to block them but I always take a second to think what could I say that would be fun to rebuff them. Then I do that and my followers seem to enjoy that and jump in on stuff. I'm not addicted to Twitter Trolls but I'm addicted to Twitter and Facebook, which I might have to go to rehab for.
Q: Have you ever been Twittched, which is how I guess Winstead would spell the word that described an orchestrated attack on Twitter?
A: Lizz just explained to me what it is and I think it happened to me one time. It was the day after the midterm election. Election night I had said some rather negative things about [Iowa Congresswoman-elect] Joan Ernst and then the next day I got all these tweets, much more than usual from people. People called me a libtard and a scumbag because they didn't like the vulgar language I was using [chuckle] to describe Joan Ernst.
Q: And their language gets quite a bit more vulgar?
A: It does. They are fun to engage with a few minutes but then they just get annoying. But the beauty of Facebook and Twitter is the block options. Then they go away.
Q: From Twitter I can tell you love Louisiana congressman Steve Scalise's dilemma. Have you ever accidentally given a speech to a White Supremacy organization?
A: I have never given a speech or appeared at a White Supremacy group. Just from a moral point of view, I can say for sure I would only appear at something like that if they paid me.
Q: Do you watch much TV now?
A: I do! I watch a lot of cable news because I enjoy wasting my time. I'm a big fan of "Orange Is The New Black" and "Breaking Bad" and "Madmen," a lot of the dramatic shows. As far as comedy shows, I like "Veep," I watch "The Daily Show," "Colbert" until he went off the air.
Interviews are edited. To contact C.J. try firstname.lastname@example.org and to see her watch FOX 9's "Buzz."